Modern technology is a truly wonderful thing, especially any medical gadgetry which can assist in receiving a swift diagnosis and subsequently rapid treatment of a painful medical condition. Which is why I was ever-so slightly excited at the prospect of going for an MRI scan at my local hospital, in the hope that it would somehow fast-track me towards the effective pain relief I’d been seeking for the ever-worsening neck pain which had afflicted me for the past 9 months.
On arrival, a cheery receptionist was more than happy to take my paperwork and immediately asked me to take a seat in the small but perfectly formed waiting area. I’d arrived unfashionably early and was therefore mentally prepared for the wait. Somewhat disconcertingly, I could hear rather a lot of banging and clanking coming from a room nearby, and I could only assume it was the scanner rather than a group of over-zealous builders. I’d been warned, by various friends in-the-know, that the machinery “is a bit loud” but had been assured that “this was quite normal”.
My hospital letter had informed me that my appointment time was actually 15 minutes before my allotted scan time, to allow for preparation, so I was pleasantly surprised that I was called into an adjoining room just 10 minutes after the time written down on my paperwork. I’d only had enough time to work myself into a minor panic, and not a full-blown cardiac situation.
A nice lady radiographer took me into a tiny corridor and sat me down while all of the questions I had already answered on my admission form were verbally repeated. Have I got any metal pins in my head? Erm – no. Have I got a pacemaker? No. Have I ever had metal fragments in either or both of my eyes? Ouch – no! Was I pregnant or breastfeeding? As a rather mature person I found the question amusing, however I remained sensible and replied, no.
I’d efficiently removed all of my jewellery beforehand, and was wearing a top with plastic rather than metal buttons; however, it hadn’t occurred to me that my bra had metal hooks. I was directed to a small changing room to remove the offending undergarment and to stash it away in one of the lockers provided. I replaced my shirt, for the sake of modesty, and was now ready to face the machinery.
I appeared to have entered the NASA Space Station, with a vast window at the far end of the room where the radiographer sat in mission control. Once I’d removed my trainers I was helped onto a terribly high and narrow table. I was now beginning to worry. The radiographer told me that the noise would be very loud, and I was to insert funky orange foam ear protectors into my lugholes. She assured me I’d still be able to hear her via the internal speaker system, which was a relief.
After shuffling up the bed so that my head fitted snugly into a vice-like contraption, large pads were placed between my foam-filled ears and the metal plates either side of my head, and a squashy green ball was placed, rather unexpectedly, into my left hand. Apparently if I squeezed it at any point during the procedure, the radiographer would instantly stop everything and come and rescue me. I was instructed to close my eyes, and to keep them closed, and to remain perfectly still for the duration. A white metal frame was positioned just above my face and this was now the point of no return. Well, unless I squeezed that little green ball at any rate.
Left alone in the room, linked to the outside world only by the voice of the lady at mission control, I admit to being a tad nervous as I sensed the table moving into position, inside the scanner. For reasons probably best left unexamined, for a split second felt as if I was inside a coffin going into a crematorium. A voice in my head, the radiographer – not some schizophrenic other ‘me’ – reminded me to remain still, and warned me that I’d hear lots of noises, but I mustn’t be alarmed. Curiosity got the better of me, and I briefly opened my eyes, however, on seeing how close the bright lights were to my face I quickly closed them again. It’s a good job I’m not acutely claustrophobic.
The first sensation that I experienced was the vibrations, a bit like a mobile phone, only it was around my head. This was nothing compared to the bizarre noises the scanner was now making. It was as if I’d been put inside a video arcade game, and some gamers were shooting aliens. It wasn’t at all what I’d expected. Thankfully it was soon over; however it transpired I was to have 4 scans in all, at progressively longer stints.
I soon became very aware of my own breathing, and of just how much my chest and shoulders moved with every breath. Trying to remain still was becoming a real challenge, and I have absolutely no idea how they manage to get small children to co-operate in one of those things. I expect it was purely psychological, but I seemed to itch all over and was desperate to scratch my nose, arm, leg…. I deluded myself that I was Lara Croft chasing the bad guys in her quest for the golden lollipop, by way of a distraction.
When told “Don’t swallow”, obviously the first thing you want to do is just that. When you’re flat on your back in a noisy vibrating machine, with saliva building up at an alarming rate in your mouth threatening to drown you at any moment, I’d say it’s a physical impossibility to not swallow at some point during the scan. The urge to cough is almost intolerable and it’s a relief to get it out of your system between scans.
By the third session the novelty had truly worn off, my patience was wearing thin, and I just wanted to get out. However, I focussed on the fact that I’d wanted this MRI scan done for ages, and I ought to be jolly grateful I’m finally having it done, and I really should have a tiny bit more tolerance. The radiographer seemed to be noticing my involuntary throat spasms and was quick to remind me “Stay still and don’t swallow”. After what seemed an eternity, the shoot-em-up noises stopped and it was all over and done with, hoorah.
It took a further few minutes for the table to slide out from the space shuttle, with a rather relieved middle aged peroxide blonde on it, and as I was helped back onto the floor I wondered if this was how astronauts felt when stepping foot on terra firma again following a moon mission. After carefully extracting the orange foam ear plugs, everything sounded a little too loud for a while, and the lights seemed a bit too bright, but thankfully, after just a few minutes of disorientation I soon adjusted to normality.
So, I’ve finally had my very first MRI scan, and to be honest I’m not a fanatic. It wasn’t painful and it wasn’t really uncomfortable as such, although I did struggle with having to stay still and it would possibly be a bigger challenge to anyone with severe claustrophobia. However, it’s almost beyond belief how clever these things are and we should feel very privileged that we live in an age which can provide us with such extraordinary diagnostic tools. Now, beam me up Scotty.